Freedom Riders were not a biker gang, as people often think when she says as much to them. They were Civil Rights activists who challenged the non-enforcement of the U. S. Supreme Court decisions which ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional. Freedom Riders came in all stripes, because they understood that you can't overcomeracism with racism. They knew intrinsically that you have to fight Why did O'Connor, a white nurse and student from Minnesota, sign up for the abuse and life-threatening danger faced by people who willingly rode integrated buses into states that upheld segregation? Because, at the time, it was pretty much the same abuse and life-threatening danger faced by hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children of color every day, especially in the south. Men, women, and children who lived with extrinsically imposed indignities on a daily basis as a matter of course. And raised by politically active parents, she was personally invested in community organizing. And in doing whatever she could to see her way to helping give access and empowerment to the marginalized. O'Connor has actually spent her whole life "creating social, political, and economic change."
On June 11, 1961, Claire O'Connor, a member of SNCC -- the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee -- went with fellow Freedom Riders, referred to as the Minnesota 6, for a bus ride. It would be an interstate bus ride, heading from Memphis, Tennesse to Jackson, Mississippi. A well worn route.
Her Minnesota travel companions were Zev Aelony, Robert Baum, Eugene Uphoff, Marvin Davidov, and David Morton. O'Connor, the only woman among the six, had to be brave, but it doesn't mean she wasn't scared. She's acknowledged that she was afraid. But she was well trained and committed to doing the right thing. Sometimes, as they say, you have to "do it scared."
When the bus had stopped at Batesville, Mississippi, instead of going to the "white" waiting room, the six went to the "colored" waiting room where they were promptly arrested at its lunch counter. For this, they were charged with breaching the peace. After a night in jail and a perfunctory trial and conviction, O'Connor and her companions were sentenced to four more months in jail.
But that jail time was part of a campaign by the state of Mississippi to wear activists down, with their brand of law and order. After a few days, O'Connor's male companions were moved from jail to the men's section of the notoriously harsh Parchman Prison system. She was also moved after a couple of weeks in jail. Her lot was to spend time in the women's section of Parchman where verbal abuse and body cavity searches were routine.
Many Freedom Riders were arrested before them, and many would come after. But so many were filling the Parchman Prison that they decided to move them from prison cells to dormitories. Wouldn't want to infect the other prisoners with the contagion of defiance now, would we?
While O'Connor didn't end up staying all four months, 28 days -- essentially a month -- in a notoriously harsh penal system was plenty. When the Minnesota 6 were all released, they hoped to stress and oppress the Mississippi justice system with appeals. After all, it was with persistent use of process, not violence, that they intended to win this war. Appeals, not surprisingly, were met with further resistance. New trials. Two a day.
At the time of the journey, O'Connor was a college student and nurse. She'd eventually go on to earn Master's degrees in both Education and Anthropology, studying in Minnesota, Indiana, and Manitoba, Canada. Along the way she learned a lot about civil disobedience. Those who could kill the body were never as dangerous to her as those who would kill the soul and deny dignity, life, and liberty to fellow men.
Adding to her education and applied skills in non-violent resistance, her prison stay only steeled her resolve to work harder for justice. O'Connor certainly did her part, but never stopped working for change. Even after being released from an arduous time in prison and returning home from the south, O'Connor went back to Mississippi -- Panola County, to be exact -- to register black voters. She worked as a community organizer in Mississippi and in community outreach with marginalized populations across many years in Manitoba. O'Connor also helped found Freedom House, Minnesota's first community-based alternative school. Even some of her present art work makes reference to the activism that has always been integral to who she is.
Claire O'Connor has never been daunted by having to swim upstream. She knows full well that, often, doing the right thing demands it.
And what about us? There are young people who think the Freedom Riders were a biker gang. Just as sad, or scary, there are people my age -- and I was born before the Civil Rights Voting Act was passed -- who don't know who Frederick Douglass was, let alone who the Freedom Riders are. Whatever it is that has made this possible, if we keep doin' it...if we keep doin' what we're doin,' we're gonna keep on gettin' what we've been getting.
Knowledge is power. And a key to the prevention of the repeating of the worst of human history. So, repurpose this. Pass it on! And let's look for ways we can activate change, or at least be advocates for it.